At the height of the mid-August heat wave, I was relieved when an old friend canceled his planned trip to attend a sprawling, old farm machinery show amid central Illinois’ endless, sweltering cornfields.
While both of us love to see Oliver 77s, Super Ms and Ford 9Ns of our youth, neither of us wants to be as sweaty or dirty during those admiring visits as we were when driving ‘em in our hot, dirt-eating youths.
But there is something about those 50-, 60- and 70-year-old lovingly restored, rust-bucket beauties that still attracts an eye, conjures a story and warms a heart.
In fact, unlike many other ag journalists, I have only four toy tractors in my office: two that are manufacturer gifts from tractor introductions — the best of which, admittedly, is a very sweet, very big Versatile 1150 from 1981 — and two are unblemished, green-and-yellow Oliver 77s. One is a “Super” 77, the other a plain “Row Crop” 77.
While we were Oliver people on the southern Illinois dairy farm of my youth, we never owned a Super anything Oliver. We did, however, run a Row Crop 66, Row Crop 77 and Row Crop 88. The 88 was our “big” — when 40 horsepower was big — tractor.
The 77 was Uncle Honey’s tractor of choice for two practical reasons. First, my father didn’t trust his inattentive, iron-bending uncle with anything associated with the word “big;” alas, no 88 for him.
More importantly, the 77 had hydraulics, a requirement to raise our Oliver mower’s 7-foot sickle bar when mowing alfalfa, straw, or my mother’s perpetually replanted peach trees.
And, yes, despite Honey’s honestly earned reputation for destroying farm equipment — he did, after all, plow out two telephone poles — Dad had him mow because those four or five cuttings of 100 acres of alfalfa each year intentionally kept him away from the combine, silage wagons, humans, chain saw, cows, fence posts and telephone poles.
When the farm moved from 36-inch rows to 30-inch, out went the 66, 77 and 88 and in came a new wave of Oliver — and not yet White branded — tractors: a gas 1650, a diesel 1755 and a rugged, log wagon 1850. The 1650 had a narrow front and the 1755 and 1850 were our first wide fronts.
Of the three, my two older brothers and I often argued over who would get the 1650 for their day’s work. Its purring engine, power steering and narrow front made it the perfect tractor for baling hay, planting corn, chopping stalks, pulling silage wagons, backing a hay wagon into the barn — you name it.
And its best feature was its most important: our farm’s first foam tractor seat. Yes, it was plastic covered and, yes, it was a hotplate in the summer and an ice block in the winter.
Even at that, the seat wasn’t as hot, cold, or hard as the backside-slapping steel seats on the old Oliver fleet that encouraged more standing than sitting while operating.
Honey inherited the stiff, roaring 1850 for both plowing and silage chopping. To his great displeasure, the sickle mower went with the 77.
Dad replaced both with a self-propelled, hydrostatic Owatonna haybine and, without any discussion, replaced Honey with me as its only operator.
When White Farm Equipment began to dominate Oliver in the late 1960s, my father’s loyalty to the brand ebbed. He was no fan of Case — a 930 Comfort King came and went pretty quickly — and never considered John Deere because he never found a Deere dealer he could bargain with.
He did, however, own a high-hours 4020 at the end of his farming career because, I suspect, its price fit his wallet more than the poorly maintained tractor fit his needs.
His final, go-to “big” tractor was a mid-1970s Ford 9600. It was the only tractor he ever owned with a cab and he all but wore it out over the following decades.
It sold for pennies at his retirement auction and holds no special spot in my heart. Mostly because that space was taken long ago by an Oliver 77.